Drones get in the way during emergencies, first responders say

Pennsylvania. Operators must land their drones when they see a police or EMS helicopter in the sky, state officials said during a recent press conference. EMS helicopters cannot land when there is a drone in the vicinity. A police helicopter’s flight path and altitude may change abruptly and with little warning.

13 Feb 2020 | 04:09

Drones may delay getting people the help they need in emergencies, while also putting the drone operators in harm’s way, state officials said in a recent press conference.

Jennie Granger, deputy secretary for Multimodal Transportation in the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), said her department is "excited about the potential that drone technology holds. But as with any new technology, it’s critical that safety is at the forefront of the conversation, and that all drone operators follow FAA regulations when operating.”

Also at the Jan. 31 press conference in Hershey were representatives of the Pennsylvania State Police, Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, Office of the State Fire Commissioner, the Department of Health, and Penn State Health Life Lion Critical Care Transport. They all highlighted the danger that unmanned aircraft can pose to helicopters in emergencies.

“The safety of the troopers in state police helicopters and everyone on the ground is our top priority when flying any mission,” said Captain Gary Vogue, director of the Tactical Operations Division of the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Emergency and Special Operations. “A police helicopter’s flight path and altitude may change abruptly and with little warning. We ask drone operators to keep safety in mind and leave the area or land their unmanned aircraft when they see a police or EMS helicopter in the sky.”

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), more than 1.5 million drones are registered in the United States, and they are being used for everything from recreation to commercial and military applications.

All drones must be registered with the FAA and follow FAA guidelines. One of those guidelines is to not interfere with emergency response activities.

“What drone operators may not realize is that an EMS helicopter cannot land when there is a drone in the vicinity,” said Ray Barishansky, Deputy Secretary for Health Preparedness and Community Protection. “This means that there may be a significant delay to getting care to a patient. This is not just an inconvenience, but it can be a life-or-death situation.”

There are 81 licensed air ambulances in Pennsylvania. In 2019, there were more than 21,000 calls for air medical services. First responders also use drones to search for missing persons, to fight fires, and to protect public safety.

State Fire Commissioner Bruce Trego said drones are providing state departments with "new capabilities, and affording them critical situational awareness data that saves lives. These benefits are not without cost, however, and we want to ensure that operators are using them safely and in accordance with the applicable laws.”

The FAA is responsible for the safety of U.S. airspace. Anyone who operates a drone illegally could face civil penalties and potentially criminal prosecution. For more information on drone operation and registration, visit faa.gov.

The Pennsylvania’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Law makes it a crime to operate a drone in the following circumstances:
When there is an emergency response in progress in the area
To conduct surveillance of another person in a private place
In a fashion that places another person in fear of bodily injury
To deliver, provide, transmit, or furnish contraband